By James Estrin
When Michael Nichols first photographed elephants in the lowland forests of the Central African Republic in 1991, he only caught fleeting moments of them, and at great peril. These sensitive behemoths were so afraid of ivory poachers hunting them down, they thundered off at the slightest hint of human activity.
It took him 16 years to encounter elephants who were not fearful of humans, on the savannah of Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve, where they were protected and used to tourists. He spent two years there photographing a group of 600 elephants, gradually comprehending their complex relationships, intelligence and compassion.
When one family mourned the death of a female, the elephants approached and surrounded the corpse, touched it with their trunks, and started swaying back and forth. Matriarchs from nearby elephant families joined in.
“They go to the corpse and they won’t leave it,” Mr. Nichols said. “Even when it’s just bones. Once a year they’ll visit the bones and hold them with their trunk. I would call that mourning.”
His 20-year project, “Earth to Sky,” is being published by Aperture this week. It is a stunningly beautiful book, whose images, many of them taken while on assignment for National Geographic magazine, reflect experiences that had a profound effect on Mr. Nichols.
“These are the most caring and sentient creatures on earth,” he wrote in the book, “yet they suffer so horribly at the hand of man.”
He was helped in the savannah by Daniel Lentipo, a Samburu tribesman who had worked with a researcher from the environmental organization Save the Elephants. More....